Great Wall My Love: Los Angeles Screening

April 11, 2012 § 1 Comment

Great Wall, My Love (Chasing Love)

Great Wall My Love will be shown in this year’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, on 5/16/12 at 7 PM, at the CGV Cinemas 2.  The director, Emily Liu, will be present.

I co-originated and co-wrote this project, worked on it for eight years, and was originally a co-producer. Though I don’t want to take away from Emily’s accomplishment–Emily got it produced against all odds, in the midst of a horrible recession–I will see the film with mixed feelings, as its political content (which used to balance the romantic comedy and road trip elements) was removed.  Just by its nature (Chinese/Taiwanese co-production) the production was still somewhat political, and that must suffice, especially as its main audience is in China.

The film, starring Cherrie Ying and Tong Dawei, takes place in nine glorious locations along the Great Wall of China.  Li-Kong Hsu (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Eat Drink Man Woman) executive-produced.

Basement

January 8, 2012 § 3 Comments

By Jacqueline Austin

"Metallic Tractors," satirical etching by James Gillray (1793)

To get there, I had to go out of the “living” part of the house, and through the door beyond the stairs, to the no man’s land between the house and my father’s medical office.

I had to pass the tall white drug cabinet, ghostly on the left, and the closed door to the main examining rooms, on the right. Always from that door, emanated half-audible rumblings: the voice of my father, mixed with the fearful questions of strangers.

Though I could never make out the words, my father’s voice would be reassuring. If I dared, and these times were few, I would take a moment to listen, as these were the times when my father sounded like a father.

The reason I went there was to test my fears.

After I was refreshed, I would turn left, and left again, to find the yellowed, plastic accordion-fold door. When I slid it open, I would discover–between times, it felt like a dream–a narrow, dark landing ahead of me, stinking of mildew.

It was always so dark, I could never see any light switch. But I knew it was on my left, and it’s still on my left, in my dreams: a ridged, pebbled bronze plate framing four greasy flip tabs, pointing down. Each controlled a different section of the basement.

My desire to be alone usually outweighed my reluctance to touch this. And I could never remember, and still do not remember, to this day, which switch controlled what, which switches gave power. It seemed to me that this kept changing, though even at my littlest and weakest, I felt this must be impossible.

The moment I chose a switch and flipped it on, the stairway would go a-gape below me, like the open, black maw of a leaping shark. I was always afraid of falling in. Not because I was originally prone to falling, but because I’d been thrown. So now, truly clumsy, I would hold on to one or both of the long, shaky, splintery, unfinished wood rails, for which the nicer word was “banisters,” as I sidled down, one foot after the other, sixteen times, clutching its length before and behind my rapidly beating chest as though my life depended on it–which perhaps it did.

To my left above one of these banisters was an iron key rack decorated with caricatures of annoyed contemporary men. There were no keys on this, just the legend painted in white: “Gosh, hang it!” To my right above the other banister were two framed satirical etchings of doctors, the one sawing a man’s legs off, and the other bowing politely to a fat lady in a bonnet.

The filthy gold shag rug, uneven underfoot, sent up breaths of dust as my bare feet touched it. I should always have had my slippers on, because years after construction, years after “finishing” the basement, skewed staples, shards of glass and pebbles would occasionally work themselves into my soles. But slippers had slippery bottoms and they always slipped. Even their name was slippery. So I preferred to risk my feet, even though they were so clumsy.

At the bottom of the steps was the landing where they had found the skull and the gun, when “finishing” the basement. I was sure that man’s ghost was still around. I would wonder about the pyramids in Egypt, with the bones of wives and cats. Would children’s bones be left here for archaeologists to discover?

Straight ahead of this landing was a furnace room–a clanking room of horrors. The door could not be shut; gray with dust, as yet “unfinished,” it had frozen open. So this furnace room, painted a dark crimson red, was curtained by a clothesline dripping pink, tattered underwear which even after washing, smelled of urine and bleach. The underwear half concealed, half revealed a gigantic whale, a filthy, thrumming cylinder of hammered metal. This was the malevolent heart of our grand, palatial house. I had once been shoved up against it and had been shown the fire inside. If I didn’t stop crying, the threat went, I would be given something to cry about.

So, when going there myself, whenever making a scientific test, I needed to check out that black area beyond the furnace, where the tools and witches were. I never understood how the broken, twisted things which lived there, could be used to repair anything, as indeed they never fully did. Another clothesline behind the first was threaded with partially used rounds of duct tape, black electrical tape and adhesive tape, once sterile, which had been dropped or dripped on, sometimes with blood. These were the most used tools in my father’s house. To the left of this second clothesline he kept a cardboard shopping bag filled with white, sticky surgical bandages. Even for a test, I couldn’t bear to put either of my hands into it.

Running out the red boiler room door, I would find myself in a narrow corridor, where the treatment rooms were. My father had several modern machines–well, they’d been modern long ago–and had dressed up three of the rooms with shiny, yellowed plastic wall panels, and the same yellowed plastic folding doors as at the entrance. The linoleum floor was kept clean and polished once a month by a Mr. Gruener, silent, fat and tall, who seemed to think nothing of flipping over his buffing machine from hell, yanking off the wire bristle pads, and exchanging them for new ones. So there would now be residues of honey wax, gluing together balls of bugs and hair, to peel off my feet, and here was another point at which I’d often break, and run.

The first room on the right contained a black vinyl and wood examining room table, with a roll of white paper at one end. Over this, hovered a diathermy machine–a control bank body-face expressive with dials and switches, from which sprang two disjointed arms. At the end of each arm were mechanical hands–large, black plastic plates faced, on the inside, with heating coils. I must never switch on the diathermy machine or the ultraviolet treatment machine next to it, as the coils turned purple-white and could blow out my eyes.

The second room on the right contained a giant hydrotherapy vat with hot and cold running ionized water. The patient–sometimes me–would be placed naked into this vat of water, chin deep, and the whirlpool turned on. With a sound like thunder, and vibration to match, the patient would be instantly cured or killed. One must hold on throughout, as this machine was not designed for children.

At the end of the hall was a dressing room. Sometimes this would become a maid’s room, as a maid would be hired and treated like a slave before, always, being fired. Our family’s cast-off furniture, a narrow cot and a clothes rack were all that were kept here, except for one high clerestory window, half covered with weeds, looking out on the ankles of the gardener, and the smells of grass and gasoline.

It was the main room of the basement, on the other side, which was the most occupied. I will save that for another day. I am only writing about these places, these lost places near my soul, because nobody ever noticed them, but us children.

Copyright 2012 by Jacqueline Austin.  From Vision, a book in progress.  All rights reserved.

Five Feet

December 21, 2011 § Leave a comment

By Jacqueline Austin

Girl’s Eye (Courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Unfortunately, I’d been treated badly as a child by parents who had been driven mad by war.  The result was a body, my body, which was at once desensitized and hypersensitive.

None of my senses agreed about the nature or placement of things in the world.  Together, they gave an untrustworthy depiction of reality.  My ears placed, say, a purring cat, farther away than did my eyes, and the cat might look bigger or smaller than it might feel, were I to hold it.  I’d known this for a long time, but still it was a shock when one of my doctors, an osteopath, noted during my fifth or sixth treatment, that my senses were always acutely trained on an area five feet in front of my body.

When he told me this, his hands were on my head, as gentle as ever.  But my body clenched as though he had hit me.  And I saw it, the door to my room when I was a child, opening, with a sound of terror coming in.

I realized that if I were to go this way–and I couldn’t avoid it—that my body would not lie.  The physical traces of my history would be obvious and public.  I would have no privacy.  I would have to tell my doctor about my father.

A history of child abuse is a very complex thing, even when the person who holds the history, is long past resentment.  I didn’t love my father any less than you love yours.   But perhaps this isn’t true, exactly.  Maybe this yearning that if it were only so, if one, if I, had been properly reared, if things were right, if my body hadn’t been cursed by a mortal man, then I might relax into a feeling that unrequited love, my love for my father, doesn’t have to be more loving than your requited, sated, love, for yours.  When I grew up, I grew up too fast and moved on too soon, and I lived forever after in a miasma of doubt and longing.

So while I could see in memory a door opening and an angry father coming in, and I could feel myself flying through the air, and I could posit, though not remember, the actual moment of impact, this was all with the double consciousness that to the self that should have been, that nothing like this ever could have happened.

All through this, my doctor’s hands were gently probing the quarter to half inch deep dent, a few inches long, and about an inch wide, in the right side of my skull.  “When did it happen?” he asked.

“Age ten?  No, nine,” I said as if in a dream.

“You must have had quite a concussion.”

“I don’t remember,” I said, flushing from my knees to my skull.

His hand stopped moving and we sat there quietly.

My twin sister would tell me I’d been unconscious for quite a time, after I hit the wall, that the concussion was severe, that my father cried with guilt before he quickly forgot having done such a thing (and forgot to mark that he should not do it again), that our closet door was completely splintered, and that the five feet in front of my body into which my senses were trained, was that most fearful distance from my childhood bed, to the door of our childhood bedroom.  She would feel as guilty for having seen it, as he did, for having done it.

I went home from the doctor’s with a raging headache, one which would last two years.

There were other causes of my vision problem as well, catalysts which had set off dysfunctions both earlier and later, but this one, in the bone, was the first we found.  Before I could correct my vision, I would have to recognize my proprioception.  I would often wish to turn back and forget the whole endeavor.  But it turned out to be a one way street; the Rube Goldberg-like compensatory mechanism, once broken, proved to be impossible to restore.

Copyright 2011 by Jacqueline Austin.  From Vision, a book in progress.  All rights reserved.  

One But Not The Same

November 28, 2011 § 3 Comments

by Jacqueline Austin

Twins in Utero, public domain image (Web)

My identical twin sister and I didn’t used to have identities. Until we became adults, we felt we were the same person. Nobody could tell us apart, not friends, not teachers, not family–not even ourselves. We spoke a secret language. Our fingerprints were the same. We were in the same class at school; when we switched seats, no one noticed. The freakish power of being one was exhilarating, but horrible. I remember one night when we were six, we both woke screaming from the same nightmare.

Looking at old photographs, I still can’t tell us apart, my twin and I, unless we are smiling (my smile was always my own), or unless I study the ears. My sister’s left ear, which was twisted at birth, is slightly square. Neither of us was born perfect. our mother’s womb seems to have been reluctant to let us go. The doctor yanked us out with forceps, my sister first, her ear bleeding, and myself, blue with cyanosis, five minutes later. Umbilical cords were wrapped around both of our necks. My sister’s cord was around my neck; mine was around hers. We had shared a placenta. In this process of birth, we seem to have strangled each other. Each twin thus deprived the other of what otherwise could have been her last moments of prenatal protection.

My birth taught me, I guess, that it can be fatal to be similar, but five steps behind. But it could be equally fatal to be five steps ahead. And so we grew: five steps forward, five steps back, one always yanking an invisible, strangulating cord, chortling at the follower’s, the inferior’s, ill fortune. I used to use “I” to mean either of us. Sometimes it was I who was ahead, and I always felt an expansion. Later would come sick guilt–a deadly hangover following the exhilarating binge of feeling free.

Today, my twin and I live in different cities. Our voices, many of our gestures and intonations and thoughts, are still similar. Sometimes I pick up the phone before it’s rung, and call the silent, breathing presence on the other end of the line, by her right name–the name of my twin. I am still occasionally accosted by strangers who insist I’m she, who stare at me when I tell them she’s my twin, and then frown as if they’ve caught me playing a practical joke on them. But today if we stood side by side, nobody observant could mistake us for each other. I have had children; she has not. She is in better physical condition. She’s clipped her hair and left it natural. My long hair, I color, and let fly wild around my face. We still share the bitter joke that was our past, but from the same genes, we have build divergent futures. Somewhere and sometime I don’t recollect, we stopped strangling each other. We became ourselves.

My twin and I don’t represent all twins. There are many ways to be a twin. One’s (or two’s) choice of relationship depends on how the twins perceive one another, on what they expect from themselves and from each other, and how when they were growing up, their families responded to them–what others expected of them.

There are also many twins who, like my sister and myself, have developed separate careers and very different lives. How do those other twins feel about the mini-society that is their pair bond? Do they enjoy being objectified by the larger world? How alike do they consider themselves, and how different? What is the nature of their current relationship compared to the one they had as children? What is it like to be the twin of their twin?

I suspect that many twins will have had a dramatic struggle with identity. Their lovers may have castigated them for being too close to their twin. The twinship might have dramatically affected both of their families of choice, as well as the family they both inherited.

In Identity and Intimacy in Twins (Praeger, 1983), Barbara Schave and Janet Ciriello (both twins, but not of each other) describe a spectrum of ways in which twins are twins. At one end of the spectrum (sibling attachment identity), are twins who relate to each other like any other siblings. At the other (unit identity), twins construct, or perhaps fall back on by default, a fused sense of self, two-as-one, that would boggle any single person’s mind. Between these two extremes lies a range of twin bonds: interdependent, idealized, split (good twin/bad twin), competitive. But if a twin is to develop a true individual identity, she or he must step outside the bond. It is in this moment, brave and lonely, that anyone who looks at twins, will see him or herself.

When I lived in New York a few years ago, I used to always see one pair of unit identity twins. A green bench near an Upper Westside fountain was the particular territory of two identically matched, delicate, beautiful old ladies in lacy, flower-sprigged shirtwaists, white hair twisted into identical, pretty French knots. Pink and white as powder puffs, the two ladies, seemingly both the same, sat half-facing each other, nylons squeaking as they uncrossed and recrossed their legs at the ankle, lifting their eyebrows at the passersby. To them, we watchers must have presented ourselves as a spectacular fantasy; to themselves they seemed to be just–them. Under their bench would be propped the day’s New York Times, spread out against the city dirt. On it would be resting the ancient Bonwit Teller bag in which every day, they transported their world. Between them was always a pretty place mat, a tea pot, two identical china mugs with floral patterns, and, if it was early in the day, exactly four biscuits. The ladies would take turns pouring, sipping, nibbling and speaking. Little of the speaking was done in words. If pigeons hopped too close, two pretty little napkins would fly out, flap once or twice, then come to rest.

Do either of these ladies, or both, sometimes feel that they’re the real person, and that the other is their mirror? When they look in a glass, who do they see? What is identity? How do we become ourselves? What is it like to live so closely bonded to another, that the very nature of the boundary between people is different?

What can twins show us?

What can’t they show us?

Copyright 2011 by Jacqueline Austin. All rights reserved. Adapted and excerpted from One But Not The Same, 1994.

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